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When Amanda Taylor* arrived at daycare, she was breathless and wholly unprepared for the day's report on her three-year-old daughter. “Oh, just an FYI,” said the kindly daycare provider nonchalantly, “Sophie has been spending quite a lot of naptime touching herself.”
“Ah!” said Taylor, completely caught by surprise. “Thanks for letting me know!” she said, racing out the door. Recalling that drive home a few years later, Taylor remembers feeling mostly shocked. “I had no idea that she had started doing that!” she says. “I was torn between telling myself that this is totally normal and just…oh my God! What do I say?”
We may think we’ve come a long way from the days of masturbation shaming (just think of the old myths that desperate parents have parroted over the years to get kids to stop touching themselves: blindness, curved spines, hairy palms!), but the truth is, having the talk with kids isn’t easy.
One of the reasons why it’s so tricky, says Marnie Goldenberg, a sexual-health educator in Vancouver, is that “no one had that conversation with us!” Think back to your own experiences of your parents’ discovery of your self-discovery and, chances are, a hot flush will probably still creep up your neck. Even if their reaction was to silently back out of a room or never discuss it at all, that can still speak volumes: Kids need to hear that it’s OK to explore their own bodies.
“At this young age, masturbation isn’t a sexual thing,” says Goldenberg. “Some parents fear it’s a sign that their kid has been exposed to sexual content or even assaulted, but it’s really important to remember that it’s a comforting, soothing, feel-good sensation. Self-exploration is a great thing. You’re allowed to touch and explore your body.”
For Taylor, her chat with Sophie happened that evening after a hissed conversation with her husband. The goal: to avoid embarrassing their daughter at all and impart the fact that touching yourself is a private matter. Though they all squirmed their way through the brief talk. “Fortunately, she got it pretty quickly,” she says. Sophie continued self-exploring but only at home and in her room with the door closed.
Taylor didn’t expect to have this conversation when her daughter was so young, but it’s a pretty common age—some kids might start exploring their bodies even earlier. Daisy Jackson had to have a similar conversation a few years ago, when her son, Jeff, was three: “I told him, ‘Yup, that’s your penis. It’s a special part of your body and I bet it feels really good to touch it. But you may only put your hands down your pants like that when you’re alone.’ I tried to be really boring and matter-of-fact about it and it seemed to work.”
Whether they’ve started exploring at two or 12, the message that parents should be delivering is one and the same, says Goldenberg: “It’s totally healthy, and it’s totally normal.” Here’s what else to keep in mind.
“You don’t need to go into great detail,” says Goldenberg. “Just a simple, ‘Hey, I know that probably feels good, and that’s great. It’s a totally natural thing to do, but let’s just make sure you do it in private, like your bedroom or the bath, OK?’ Speak with empathy, not shame.” Explain that there are just some things we do privately, and this is one of them. But that doesn’t mean it’s a secret thing you can’t talk about—let them know that you’re always available if they have any questions, and check in with them occasionally.
Taylor's daughter is now nine and still masturbates at bedtime—it’s her go-to way to relax and fall asleep. Taylor knows this because they still keep the conversation going. “Are you still…?” Taylor recently asked, waving a hand around and raising an eyebrow. “Yeah,” Sophie responded. “OK, great. You just know it’s not a thing to do at sleepovers, right?” (The idea of her daughter being busted by a gaggle of tween girls makes her cringe.) Sophie’s response: “Mommm, I know.”
So what if your child responds with “Well, do you masturbate?”? It’s OK to deflect, says Goldenberg, or even choose not to answer. “One thing you could say is, ‘Well, the majority of people do it, so…’ or ‘What I do with my body doesn’t have anything to do with what you do with yours. It’s private—same as with you!’”
What if you gear yourself up for the big talk and your kids seem utterly disinterested in the whole thing? That’s fine, too. Goldenberg’s own parenting strategy is to broach the topic before kids do, so even if they don’t seem inquisitive about their bodies just yet, you’ve put it out there in a neutral, cool way. “Chances are, they’ll start doing it at some point,” she says. And when they do, you’ll want to make sure that it isn’t shrouded in mystery, confusion and shame.
If there are signs of irritation from excessive rubbing or if it seems to be interfering with your kids’ ability to enjoy other facets of life, you may need to talk to your paediatrician; otherwise, don’t stress. “Kids who masturbate are learning about their bodies and what feels good,” says Goldenberg. “That’s a pretty great thing.”
This is a great chance to really emphasize the fact that it’s their body—they choose how to use their bodies, and no one else should be touching them in this way. “It’s all part of a continuum of ‘Your body belongs to you,’” says Goldenberg. “You could say ‘This is your body and it’s great for you to touch and explore it, but grownups should never touch your genitals like that,’” she says. “You need to qualify that a bit by saying ‘Mummy, Daddy and Grandma can help you after you use the toilet and a doctor might have to touch you there, but I will always be right there with you.’”
* All names have been changed